Illness

Recently, I saw a commercial for the upcoming 2019 Bell Let’s Talk Day, to be held on January 30th. The ad shows scene after scene, in quick succession, a number of people who do not utter a word. The actors sit comfortably in front of the camera. Some are smiling, some are not, and others are neutral. It’s as if the ad is daring viewers to infer a story about them or  leap to false conclusions, and then we learn they aren’t actors.

By all appearances, the people in the spot represent a cross section of ages and cultures found across Canada. The only message stating that each person suffers from mental illness is a little chyron in the corner stating this fact. Suddenly, for the viewer, there’s a realization that unlike seeing someone in a cast, wearing a chemo patch, or who is propped up in a hospital bed we really have no way of knowing when someone is suffering from mental illness because it can’t be seen.

Does this excuse us from understanding or accepting a person’s illness merely because we can’t see it?

The invisible nature of mental illness makes it hard for all of us to identify it in someone. Especially sufferers who are stoic and silent. For many reasons, we are more likely to believe what we see rather than what we do not. Sometimes people are just having a bad day due to circumstances beyond their control. It is difficult to discern without ever learning all of the facts. So assumptions often take over. 

Adding fuel to this fire is the fallacy of personal incredulity that many people with mental illness face from their friends and family. 

That’s why we need to talk about mental illness as if it was as easy to discuss recovering from any other illnesses our bodies face. I think it starts here and it start with me.

I suffer from good days and bad days and I know I am not alone. We are not alone. No one is alone. 

I have felt happy, moody, pre-occupied, stressed, elated, angry, anxious, nervous, ecstatic, overjoyed, overwhelmed, indifferent, listless, lacklustre, sparkly, ebulient, magnaminous, and scared. In other words I have been on a few emotional roller coasters and the rides have not always been thrilling. I am fortunate that my highs and lows always level off and that none them linger longterm. Yet, I still choose to keep my feelings to myself.

After all, it is easier to bury it all in being busy instead of getting better. This means looking for things to take my mind off of how I feel. Helping others, taking on too many tasks, and staying occupied are all common ways of coping. Anything but talking about my feelings or appearing weak when I’m up or down. 

So let’s talk; because talking clears a path towards understanding, empathy, and encouragement. I am learning to share how I feel in posts like these and in interactions with others in the hopes of helping  more people to join the convo. 

Efforts to spark conversations about mental illness have indeed created awareness of the issues facing a sigificant segment of our population. And they are manifesting themselves more and more everyday in schools, offices, and homes. However, with recognition comes a responsibility.

Teachers are not trained psychologists. Schools are not clinics and school boards are not health networks. Yet everyday, educators are on the front lines of care for those who suffer. This includes themselves. How can we address a growing need in our profession to support one another while supporting our students in areas where few are trained to inhabit?

Here are 3 things that could make all the difference going forward;

  1. It is time for use to declassify Mental illness to the same status of illness regardless of the diagnosis. This way we can remove the invisible barrier and secret shame that some sufferers feel. No one mocks a person who has cancer? Why should people with mental illness be subjected to scorn?
  2. It’s time to fund schools and school boards to have more trained psychologists and mental health professions to support staff and students.
  3. Teachers need time and training to address their own issues of mental health without fear of stigma and reprisal from colleagues and employers. This training will build empathy and capacity in order to serve students. 

If we commit time and resources now, we stand a chance of truly ending the stigma of mental health in our community. Sadly, I fear that this will not happen in a board room or legislature because the dollars and cents are too easy to dismiss as ill spent, and with that our society needs to fix itself, not business. Government will say that it already funds health care to meet the needs of the people.

What both business and government fail to do is believe that there is really a problem to begin with. It is this collective incredulity that as historically led us to this point. So it falls again to education to create the conditions and pick up the pieces to effect change – and with zero to no budget. Nothing changes but the day. 

So here goes a simple solution in 5 easy steps to get you started. 

  1. Take time (know yourself, your colleagues, students and families, a smile or acknowledgement goes a long way as it may be the kindest thing someone experiences all day)
  2. Talk (share your feelings, hurts, joys, struggles, and victories without fear or shame)
  3. Listen (engage others to talk, let them know they matter, you do not have to solve any problems, a listener is what’s needed most)
  4. Take action (a smile, a call, or a cup of coffee with 1-4 may be the start of an important and impactful change in someone’s life, find the way you can support others best)
  5. Repeat

Our mental health is not a matter of life and death. It’s more important than that because it is an indication of our collective societal well-being. So let’s talk. 

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